By Robin Strongin, Senior Director of Health Policy
Consumers have known for quite some time now that the prescription drug pricing system is essentially a black box. Dealings among drug manufacturers, health insurers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) establish which drugs insurance will cover and make accessible to consumers. What’s more, the prices that consumers pay for those medicines vary wildly – often leading to high out-of-pocket costs for us all.
Two of the three major PBM companies that are in the middle of this drug pricing web recently announced that they are establishing new programs (CVS’s CostVantage and Express Scripts’ ClearNetwork) that set transparent formulas for drugs with a pre-set markup and a flat fee for the PBMs. On paper, this sounds like a great idea.
But consumers would be wise to take these claims with a healthy grain of proverbial salt. We know PBMs continue to find new ways to put themselves over patients (more on that here) and we must demand answers to the issues the PBMs are still skirting. For example:
- Will these new programs actually make prescription drugs more affordable and reduce out-of-pocket costs at the pharmacy counter? Notably, both Express Scripts and CVS Health have acknowledged that employers and plan sponsors may not save any money from this move. There is no sign either that consumers will be able to get the drugs they need for a fair price.
- While the companies boast increased transparency, they still have not shared – nor said they will share – how much they are paying to acquire the drugs that will be dispensed to patients. PBM clients have long sought this information, but it appears that data will still be hidden in the black box.
- In the case of CVS Health, the changes the company announced will only be effective at CVS-owned pharmacies. It will not affect how CVS will reimburse millions of prescriptions at the local and independent pharmacies it doesn’t own. A cynic might say this is just another mechanism by CVS to drive more patients to its own pharmacies.
Most notably, nothing CVS Health and Express Scripts have announced will change one of the pervasive anti-consumer elements of the drug pricing system. In their dealings with drugmakers, they can still cut deals that will determine which medicines get preferential placement. This means PBMs could continue to push consumers toward higher-priced drugs and limit access to more affordable generics and biosimilars.
It’s no coincidence that Congress is getting closer to passing PBM reform legislation that would mandate transparency, force the PBMs to pass their negotiated savings from drugmakers to consumers and remove the incentives for PBMs to push consumers to higher-priced drugs. One might say that these moves by CVS and Express Scripts are cosmetic attempts to ward off legislation by touting their own self-reforms.
But, as with so much that goes on in the drug pricing game, these “reforms” may not be what they seem. We need Congress to step in for consumers to help ensure we’re no longer facing a big disadvantage at the pharmacy counter.
Learn more about the PBM problem at nclnet.org/pbms.